[CROSSING THE RUBICON] Ep. 3: A Noiseless Patient Spider with Michael Moran

Maddy: Hi, I’m Maddy Fisher and this is Crossing the Rubicon, SPA’s poetry podcast. In this episode, I will be discussing Walt Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider” with senior Michael Moran.


“A Noiseless Patient Spider”
By Walt Whitman

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

Michael: My name is Michael Moran. I am a senior at St. Paul Academy. This is my first time on the podcast, and I’m very excited to be here.

Maddy: What were your first impressions of this poem?

Michael: It was really descriptive to me. I think that’s the biggest thing for a lot of poems, you often struggle to sort of see the situation, but focusing on one very, very small thing to me, really gives strong imagery. That’s what initially, other than you suggesting ‘Michael this is what we’re doing,’ was really interesting to me about this poem is this strong imagery. And I think that having that at the very beginning of your understanding of the poem, I feel like it sort of makes a bridge to a lot more opportunities for what it’s trying to express and understanding that.

Maddy: What do you think is the connection between the title and the rest of the poem? I know like the title is also the first line of the poem, but I was curious what you thought of ‘noiseless’ and ‘patient’ as a description for the spider.

Michael: Well, I feel like the noiseless and patient parts are trying to sort of illustrate how small its impact is on the rest of the world. Can you tell me what noise a spider makes? No, spiders don’t make noise. Anyway, the sort of noise component is obviously inherent in the spider. And the patient part where it ‘mark’d’ it was standing. To me that suggests that the spider is just a grain in the world. It’s not moving. It’s not making noise. Just watching and waiting.

Maddy: Alright. Wait, sidebar, do you take debate?

Michael: Yes.

Maddy: Oh man, I’m gonna get destroyed. Okay.

Michael: I’ve done debate for four years. Are you planning on doing it next year?

Maddy: No. I mean, maybe? I like arguing with people.

Michael: For the purposes of the podcast, it doesn’t translate. The speaking part translates, but the actual arguing is very, very specific and I don’t know if that’ll translate very well.

Maddy: Regardless, I’m scared. Okay so, actual discussion. I guess we can start the discussion portion now. What is your overall interpretation of this poem? What do you think the author, Walt Whitman, is trying to convey?

Michael: Well, I feel like I sort of established a little bit of what I believe this poem is about. Prior to this, what I was saying beforehand; that he transitions in scene from a human marking the spot and observing the spider to himself. The first stanza, I believe it’s called, is establishing that, establishing his human perspective and that of the spider. And then starting to merge them together. He says, ‘And you O my soul where you stand;’ his soul is in the same place, the same mark. And that he too feels that he’s ‘surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,’ a ‘vacant, vast surrounding.’ To me that sort of indicates what it is; that he feels like he’s a noiseless, patient spider. That in a world of giants, that’s all he is, speeding along, being towered over by monstrous creatures with powers beyond his comprehension.

Maddy: That was very deep. I do feel like I’m going to lose this argument. My interpretation—I do think, sort of agreeing with you here, the first stanza and the second stanza are super similar. And I would say that Whitman is comparing this spider to the human soul, or just humanity in general. I do definitely see themes of isolation, I think the part where it says it ‘launch’d forth filament’ and then also line eight where it says ‘ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect to them,’ I think sort of indicates isolation and connection. But overall I feel like it’s less about connection with other people and other things and more about someone trying to make their mark on the world. And the reason I think this is because he says ‘mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding.’ The spiders like launching filaments I guess, what do you call those? I have no idea. There’s probably a word for that. Like web things, web strings, whatever. He says ‘launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself.’ And I think that part, and the part where he says ‘till the bridge you will need be form’d,’ sort of indicates to me that someone is trying to make a connection with the world. I don’t know. What do you think about that?

Michael: I think that’s very interesting. I want to pose a question to you. In sort of the perspective you’re taking, what are the spheres mentioned in the third line of the second stanza?

Maddy: Okay, that was actually one of my questions for you, so you can answer this after me. Actually that part tripped me up a little bit when I originally read this. I mean I just had like a history class where we talked about spheres of influence and so obviously that clicked into my brain immediately. Disregarding my history classes, I think seeking connection and exploration. And so the spheres are just like contact with the world outside of the spiders imposed isolation. What about you?

Michael: There’s two things that I’m thinking about. I think the revelation comes in the second stanza, the ‘oceans of space’ to me is really fascinating. I think those spheres are like planets. Spheres floating and endless, and we are humans on one planet among billions of planets. And that sort of gives you the idea of how small we are. On another note, another possible explanation for that is the spheres are droplets of water and that he exists so small compared to the vastness of everything that he can see in between them. And that he can know this sort of further illustrates how small he is compared to this, and that he needs a bridge between that. That’s how small he is compared to it all.

Maddy: That makes sense. I have sort of a general clarifying question. So, all of the things about the spheres and the spider in general, are you saying that the spider is a metaphor for the human soul that’s described in the second stanza?

MichaelL I don’t think so. I think the spider is a representation of how small he is, and that smallness of his soul is what he is trying to express.

Maddy: I disagree! Respectfully. I think the spider is a metaphor for the soul because if you look at the two stanzas, the lines, so the first line of the first stanza and the first line of the second stanza, are so similar and it goes on like the second line of the first stanza stanza corresponds with the second of the second stanza. So like he says ‘surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space’ well that’s super similar to the isolation mentioned in the second line. And then, like ‘ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,’ etc. that connects so obviously to like ‘mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding.’ I think just like correlation between the two stanzas indicates that the spider is a metaphor for a soul rather than expanding upon what he describes in the second stanza.

Michael: That they’re sort of parallel lines, not exploring different things.

Maddy: Exactly.

Michael: I would say, sort of. But I would counter that in the first stanza, he is taking an interest in perspective in that he’s sort of looking through the eyes of the spider, a little bit. You know the spider is speeding alongside it. But if you’ve ever seen a spider weave its web it’s not particularly fast to us as humans. To me the only perspective where it could be that fast is that of the spider. He’s seeing through the eyes of the spider in the first one. And refers to it ‘and you O my soul,’ sort of gives it a more third person sort of viewpoint. What do you think about that?

Maddy: I do think there’s like a little bit of third person viewpoint in the second stanza, but I think that’s because he’s applying the metaphor of the spider trying to build its web to the metaphor of human souls making connections with their environment. Also I take back what I originally said, I do think it’s about making a mark on your environment, but I think it’s more about making a mark on your environment through connection with other humans, because that’s what I get, like, from the last line ‘till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.’ I think that says, like the speaker is saying that the soul will go on doing this, go on seeking connections until it succeeds in finding and creating links between itself and its surroundings. That’s why I kind of feel like the spider is the soul, and they’re interchangeable because the spider is trying to, as described in the last line of the first stanza, connect the filaments with its environment.

Michael: That makes sense. I would like to ask where are you seeing the other people? It may or may not be that specific, but sort of other humans, other personalities in this. To me, the soul part of it suggests that it can’t be thought of as physically related. I’m not exactly sure what it is but I think it’s something that matters. Maybe it’s sort of about sort of finding yourself a calling. And the spiders stuck in between somewhere where he doesn’t have something that gives him purpose.

Maddy: I don’t know if it’s necessarily people, but the fact that both the spider and the soul are trying to make connections with something; I just assumed it was other people. I don’t know, maybe it’s like connections with something else, but something in the environment. And because I feel there’s an obvious theme of isolation in this. And I feel like it’s talking about the relationship between the individual self and the larger world. I don’t know that’s kind of what I got out of it. Does that answer your question?

Michael: Yes. Thanks. So in total, I think we both shifted what we believe the meaning is a little bit. I shifted away from like a representation of just himself. I think it’s related to that and obviously I still think it’s sort of his soul is in place of the spider. And I think there’s a strong difference between just his soul and his entire being. And what would you say about your perspective on this poem?

Maddy: I would definitely say mine has changed. I think it’s about isolation and connection, and how, like we as humans are related to the larger world. And I know you think the spider is its own being, and it is, but I also feel like it’s a metaphor for the soul; he’s comparing the like search for companionship, I guess, to a spider building its web, because like a web of connection, you know? I don’t know. It kind of sounded sick.
Alright. Well our time is running out, but it sounds like we still disagree, so agree to disagree, I suppose. Maybe you’ll have to come on a second episode and this time I will be better prepared and will convince you that you are, in fact, incorrect. Anyway, thank you to Michael Moran for participating in this discussion. Once again, I’m Maddy Fisher, and this has been Crossing the Rubicon.

Adding The Sun by Kevin MacLeod
Link: https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/5708-adding-the-sun
License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/